The CRISPR Whisperer

Rodolphe Barrangou ’00 MS, ’04 Ph.D., felt out of place. There he was, his sleek 6-foot-2 frame tucked into a new tuxedo, mingling at an opulent hall at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Champagne was poured, awards were given, speeches were made. At one point, he found himself posing for pictures with Anthony Fauci, a renowned HIV/AIDS researcher. “It’s a fluke!” Barrangou recalls thinking at the time, no doubt struck with a bout of imposter syndrome. “I’m here with Tony Fauci! He’s saved millions of lives. What have I done?”

In actuality, his invitation to the 2016 Gairdner Awards Gala — where he was to receive one of biomedicine’s most prestigious prizes — had been set in motion many years earlier. Barrangou was working as a food scientist at DuPont in Madison, Wis., when he found odd stretches of repeated DNA sequences in the genomes of yogurt bacteria. These CRISPR repeats, as they were called, had turned up in other bacteria before, but nobody had been able to figure out why they were there. Barrangou performed a series of experiments to show that the repeats were part of an ancient defense system that enabled bacteria to recognize and chop up the DNA of invading viruses.

The full article can be found in the Spring 2018 edition of NC State’s alumni magazine.